Isn't This A Lovely Day For A 'Top Hat' Tribute?

Oct 17, 2020
Originally published on October 18, 2020 7:54 am

When Irving Berlin's Oscar-nominated movie musical Top Hat entered the National Film Registry, the Library of Congress wrote "This effervescent musical proved the perfect tonic for Depression-era audiences." 85 years later, a mesmerizing, modern rendition of one of its dance numbers could be seen as a "pandemic-era" tonic for today's audiences.

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The black and white dance video, choreographed by Al Blackstone and filmed in a tunnel in Brooklyn, is part of a celebration of the 85th anniversary of the release of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic. This is the first of three videos produced by Concord Theatricals, on behalf of The Irving Berlin Music Company and in coordination with CLI Studios. The other two videos will be released on October 22nd and 29th.

Set to a contemporary rendition of Berlin's song "Isn't This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain)?" by The Powder Room, Blackstone's choreography captures the yearning to be joyful with moments of desperation from feeling confined. Dancers Courtney Crain and Jordan Betscher embrace and release with movements that are both tender and spry.

Blackstone says when he heard The Powder Room's version of the song, he embraced it immediately. "It's so moody and has so much levity and so passionate," he says. "It really connected to just a deep sadness and uncertainty, particularly for dancers in New York City and the community that I deal with as a choreographer and as a teacher."

In the original "Isn't This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain)?" from Top Hat, the Astaire and Rogers dance in a gazebo as the rain pours down outside. Blackstone — a huge fan of their movies and Irving Berlin's music — and videographer Pierre Marais wanted to find a similar kind of enclosure. They settled on a cobblestoned tunnel in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn. It wasn't raining, but they shot late at night, giving the video an atmosphere of romance and drama. "My favorite combination," laughs Blackstone.

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Crain and Betscher were able to dance together without masks because they've been roommates since before the pandemic hit. With the New York performing arts world at a standstill, Crain says they've been making ends meet by teaching at dance studios. She says they were thrilled to get work actually performing. Crain also hopes the video gives "other people faith that there is something still happening in the dance world."

Blackstone says he and Marais wanted to make the video in one take "to preserve the moment as much as possible," but also "because that's how Fred did it," says Blackstone. "I think there's only one cut in the original." But that meant they had to do it multiple times. Dancer Crain didn't mind.

"I was thinking to myself how special it was that we were getting to do something that a lot of people aren't getting to do during this time," she says. "Because there aren't auditions happening and there aren't shows happening. And it was just a really special moment for me right before we did at the very last time."

This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

There's a new dance video out set to an old song - not a '70s disco single or a '50s doo-wop hit. No, we're talking about a Depression-era song from the Irving Berlin musical "Top Hat," one of my faves. As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, Irving Berlin's estate is hoping the video, released on the 85th anniversary of the movie, will help a younger generation connect with his music.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Two female dancers huddle together at night in a dark cobblestone tunnel. As the music begins, they start to let go of each other, as if maybe it's safe, then quickly embrace again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISN'T THIS A LOVELY DAY (TO BE CAUGHT IN THE RAIN)?")

THE POWDER ROOM: (Singing) The weather is frightening. Thunder and lightning are having their way.

BLAIR: In a video that's just over two minutes, dancers Courtney Crain and Jordan Betscher capture the yearning to be joyful with moments of confined desperation. Their movements are at once tender and spry. Choreographer Al Blackstone says his ideas for the piece came directly from the music, a rendition of Irving Berlin's "Isn't This A Lovely Day (To Be Caught In The Rain)?" by the band The Powder Room.

AL BLACKSTONE: It's so moody and so passionate, and I just immediately felt that it really connected to also just a deep sadness and uncertainty, particularly for dancers in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISN'T THIS A LOVELY DAY (TO BE CAUGHT IN THE RAIN)?")

THE POWDER ROOM: (Singing) As far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely day.

BLAIR: There isn't a touch of sadness in the original number from the 1935 movie "Top Hat." Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire take shelter from the rain under a gazebo and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP HAT")

BLAIR: "Top Hat" was a musical that lifted spirits during the Great Depression. Blackstone is a huge fan of Irving Berlin's and Fred Astaire's. He and videographer Pierre Marais were determined to shoot their dance film in one take.

BLACKSTONE: Because that's how Fred did it. I think there's only one cut in the original, so we really wanted to just do it all in one take, no edits, and preserve the dance as much as possible and preserve the moment as much as possible. But, of course, that means that we had to do it many times.

BLAIR: Dancer Courtney Crain, who hasn't danced professionally since the start of the pandemic, didn't mind doing it as many times as they needed to.

COURTNEY CRAIN: I was thinking to myself how special it was that, you know, we were getting to do something that a lot of people aren't getting to do during this time because there aren't auditions happening, and there aren't shows happening. And it was just a really special moment for me right before we did it the very last time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISN'T THIS A LOVELY DAY (TO BE CAUGHT IN THE RAIN)?")

THE POWDER ROOM: (Singing) The turn in the weather will keep us together, so I can honestly say, as far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely day.

BLAIR: Crain and Betscher are roommates who've been quarantined together for months, so they didn't have to wear masks when they performed. Crain says she thinks their friendship helped them embody characters who lean on each other during this difficult time. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.